GREENFIELD — If one really wanted to get to the touchstone of a person’s life, listening to prayers – the unvarnished expressions of need, fear, desire and gratitude – might be an excellent place to start.
At Friendship Bible study, held every Tuesday for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities at Brandywine Community Church, the prayer requests could be the prayer list at any Sunday school or Bible study.
Heads bowed and eyes closed, the petitions begin. “The bank is working with my sister so she doesn’t lose her house,” one person says. Another seeks travel mercies for a family member making a long trip. Another person offers a prayer of thanks for the blessing of friends.
Five years ago, Elizabeth Melton saw a need and approached the leadership at Brandywine to start a Bible study for developmentally disabled adults.
“I went to the church and told them I felt called to start this, and they said ‘run with it,”‘ Melton said.
Since then, she and other volunteers mentor, praise and study scripture weekly in 13-week sessions with a study group of about a dozen that vary in age from early 20s to seniors.
A recent Bible lesson, the parable of the talents, could hardly be more appropriate.
“What does God expect us to do with our abilities?” Lisa Cox, who volunteers with Melton, asks.
The response is quick and almost uniform.
“Use ‘em or lose ‘em.”
“They all have special talents, and they understand that,” Melton said.
Area church leaders say development of programs, classes and facilities for children and adults with special needs is a response driven primarily by the necessity to meet the needs of their church families.
“For whatever reason, we’re seeing more and more of this,” said Carole Miller, early childhood director at Park Chapel Christian Church in Greenfield. “And it’s something that we need to address.”
For some time, Park Chapel has provided “buddies” to help mentor children with special needs, but recently it has begun developing and expanding its programs and facilities with a more comprehensive view.
“We’re developing a core team so when families come in, they can tell us what needs their child has, and we can personally see what we can do for that family,” Miller said.
The church is also initiating classes, special rooms and “gentle worship services” for children who are easily overstimulated.
“They’re still being taught, but their lessons are being taught on their terms and in a way that they can handle,” Miller said.
Ultimately, the changes are about inclusion and support not just for those with special needs but for their families as well.
On staff with Park Chapel as fine arts minister and with three boys with special needs in his family, Don Crane and his wife, Karen, appreciate both sides of the effort.
“After nine years of living with special needs, God has turned on some light bulbs and helped us realize that there’s a whole family affected, and we probably ought to be doing something about that,” Crane said.
After having two children of their own – Matthew, 9; and Alice, 6 – the Cranes adopted two boys with special needs: Kendyll, 4; and Nathan, 6 months. The family is following the biblical calling “to care for widows and orphans,” Crane said.
They quickly found through a number of trials that what the family needed most was support from family, extended family and the church.
At times, parenting a child with special needs can lead to a sense of isolation if a support structure is not in place, Crane said, and that is where the new ministry attempts to strike first.
“The goal of our ministry is to include and assimilate everyone together,” he said. “We don’t believe in any disabled soul. The soul is eternal. Only the body is disabled.”
Making families feel welcome and assuring them their children are safe has been a major focus of a developing program at Brookville Road Community Church.
For the past two years, Mary Nolan, children and women’s ministries director at the church, has been expanding the volunteer and resource base there to help special-needs families and to give parents some well-deserved rest.
“For the handful of families that we serve, this has made a huge difference,” Nolan said.
The church’s special-needs programs offer parents an opportunity to worship on Sunday with the peace of mind that their kids are safe and learning about God in a classroom with a support structure of people who care for them, Nolan said.
Like other churches, the ministry was originally limited to accommodations on Sunday; however, now the church is exploring ways to actively partner with parents to work with them alongside therapists and other professionals to help them be successful.
“I see all these kids as equal, and God loves all these families. We want them to feel welcome and included in our church. That’s what it’s all about,” she said.
Keeping things focused and on track at Friendship Bible study can be arduous at times, with a dozen minds going in about as many directions. However, there are always smiles, and wherever the discussion wanders, it doesn’t stray too far off the path or go around the bend completely. There are many common threads that bind the classroom.
“Sometimes, when we’re there, we get tired,” Melton said. “But it’s always renewing. God is there.”